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Out of the box

A soldier entering Alan's installation of a temple.

A soldier entering Alan's installation of a temple.  

It was a chance discovery of a shoebox full of old photos at an estate sale that led photographer and artist couple Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral half way across the world from Chicago to Kolkata. The box contained precisely 130 brown envelopes, each with one 4x5'' high-quality negative and one black-and-white print. The photos seemed to have been taken in India. Teller and Zbiral paid $20 for the box. Each negative had a notation at the bottom — ‘10th PTU’ — accompanied by a date from 1945. The photos were snapshots of rural life — people working in rice fields, with fish nets, making paan, children playing, temples.

That was 27 years ago. It was only in 2005 that Teller and Zbiral decided to follow the box to trace the origins of the photographs. Students, scholars, different organisations, everyone contributed to this epic journey of discovery.

The sleuthing that went into unravelling the story behind the box was rather Holmesian. The clues were scattered across elements in the photographs — from captions to details in the images. For instance, the photos of American soldiers, the American spellings used in the captions, and the last few photos in the box labelled ‘Okinawa’, led Zbiral and Teller to believe that the photographer could have been an American GI stationed in India at the end of World War II.

But who was he? The high quality and size of negatives pointed to the use of a Speed Graphic, an army-issue press camera that required special skills to operate.

Sleuthing help came from unexpected quarters. Teller was teaching a class on photography and anthropology, and the photos were used as resource material. A particularly enthusiastic student, fascinated by the collection, did some research into U.S. Army troops stationed in India during WW II. She found that several air bases had been maintained in what is now West Bengal and the notation ‘10th PTU’ stood for ‘10th Photographic Technical Unit,’ which operated in Bengal from 1942 to 1945. “The unit was engaged in reconnaissance work, taking aerial photographs with special cameras to map out a possible land invasion of Japan,” says Teller.

But it was only five years later, in 2011, that Teller and Zbiral were able to begin the journey of tracking the photographer and visit India for a preliminary research trip, determined to find out the story behind the pictures.

“In the first trip, we could identify only one temple,” says Teller. It was at the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) in Gurgaon that they found one place where the mysterious photographer had been. “They were trying to catalogue all the temples in India.” He thought if they could identify even one of the temples in the photos, they would be able to figure out where the photos were taken. Sifting through the archives at AIIS, they identified the Karanagarh Temple near Piardoba airfield in Bishnupur, the site of one of the former U.S. Army air bases in Bengal.

The couple had to return to the U.S. but came back in 2013 for five months, equipped with a Fulbright-Nehru grant, which would enable them to gather further information about the photos. Their second visit took them to Kharagpur, where two IIT students helped out as translators and research assistants. With their help, they found that one of the photos was of Salua Air Force Base. Zbiral and Teller were able to visit the base, where Gurkhas joined them in their search for a laundry and pond found in two photographs.

On their travels in and around Kharagpur, the couple would get mobbed every time they took out the photos. “One day, a young man looked at one of our photos and said it was of his great-grandfather (the founder and head priest of the temple behind him in the photo),” smiles Teller. “The next day, he brought his 90-year-old grandmother, the daughter-in-law of the man in the picture. She wept when she saw the photo.”

The two put together an exhibition called ‘Following the Box: An Artistic Exploration of an Archive of Anonymous Photographs from India’. It had its first showing at Birla Academy of Art and Culture in Kolkata early this year, and drew in over 2,000 visitors. “One visitor said ‘Thank you for bringing the photos back, they are a part of my childhood’,” said Zbiral. The exhibition had contemporary Indian artists interpreting the story behind the photos through triptych panels, a handmade accordion book, a graphic novel, digital photo mashing, art installations, story scrolls, and collage. Zbiral has created a jigsaw puzzle using the photographs — “I see it as a mystery we are yet to unravel fully”.

‘Following the Box’ then travelled to Delhi, Mumbai, Chicago and New York. A film on the project premiered at the New York Indian Film Festival in May and at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival in Kerala in June. Teller and Zbiral want to develop a major show in-house and are looking for funding. “The Fulbright is over and it costs a lot to just ship these photos. Most museums get corporate backing.” They’ve had several meetings with potential funders and remain hopeful.

Meanwhile, the story of the mysterious U.S. soldier and the remarkable images from his Speed Graphic 4x5” press camera continues.

In August, the ‘Following the Box’ blog received this post: “Hello Jerri and Alan, I just found this site and the related article in Chicago Reader. I have been adding captions to my grandfather’s WW2 war album pictures (about 500 of them), and have been trying to identify the places he saw. One of them (I cannot believe it) is Balaji Temple, the same vantage view as your picture, but with an Indian man and a naked child standing in front of the structure. My grandfather was a ground crew mechanic in Kharagpur and Pengshan, China (and later Tinian) from 1944 to 1945. I thought this was South Indian also — no wonder I could not identify it. I also have some other pictures, by the same photographer, most likely. My grandfather must have acquired them while at Kharagpur, before shipping to Tinian in May ’45. If you wish to contact me, I am a professor of history, and would love to share notes! The captions I am preparing are to accompany a scanned set of his pictures already donated to the New England Air Museum (CT), which houses a large collection of military memoirs and pictures belonging to servicemen of the 58th Bomb Wing (Kharagpur was one of the bases they used, as you know). Many thanks for your research and posting of this picture and story! — David T. Fletcher.”

You can follow the box here: http://followingthebox.blogspot.in

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2020 8:42:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/discovery-of-a-shoebox-full-of-old-photos-takes-a-chicago-couple-on-an-epic-journey-to-kolkata/article7872724.ece

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